Seaweed industry set to explode

Australia’s seaweed industry is on the cusp of rapid expansion that could see it valued at $100 million in the next five years, according to a recent report from AgriFutures Australia.

Seaweed is a growing industry. Video: Damon Erceg.

The Australian Seaweed Industry Blueprint forecasts that our domestic industry could be valued at $1.5 billion within the next two decades while the global industry is tipped to quadruple.

AgriFutures Australia also believes the industry has the potential to create 9000 jobs and reduce Australia’s carbon footprint by 10 per cent in that same timeframe if all the blueprint’s recommendations are met.

The Brisbane-based Australian Seaweed Institute chief executive Jo Kelly admits the future is bright but concedes there is still plenty of work to be done.

“We need to establish an industry group to drive the ambitious development of the seaweed industry, obtain R&D funding and get government policy to support large scale seaweed ocean farming,” Ms Kelly said.

The catalyst for much of this future growth revolves around the discovery of the Asparagopsis, a type of algae native to Australia, that when added to animal feed can reduce the methane levels of cattle by up to 99 per cent.

The discovery is being commercialised by the CSIRO’s FutureFeed whose investors include Woolworths Group, Graincorp and Andrew Forrest. 

Ms Kelly says : “There is investor confidence that the research and business case for Asparagopsis investment stacks up.”

Despite all the promise surrounding this algae, one land-based farm is not buying into the hype.

NSW’s Venus Shell Systems director and chief scientist Pia Winberg is advising the government to refrain from backing methane reducing seaweeds referring to the hype as “an investor sell not well founded in reality”.

“The application, feasibility and claims of global benefit are not accurate,” Dr Winberg said.

“If you add it up, all it does is buy the earth two years of thinking time instead of doing something real time.”

Seaweed has many more practical uses than just food however, with fertilisers, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, biofuels, and bioplastics just to name a few.

Ms Kelly says: “It’s an aquaculture and biotechnology opportunity because of what you can make out of the seaweeds and we’ve only just scratched the surface there.”

Seaweed growth requires very minimal maintenance and is low cost, with its biggest expense being coastal and in-land real estate, something that Australia has in abundance.

The algae also work as a natural bio-filter, removing unwanted nutrients from wastewater helping sensitive ecosystems to thrive.

Despite the high hopes the industry is still in its infancy, with Australia currently hosting just three commercial farms, all of which are land-based.

Historically Australia imports most of its seaweed. In 2017 we as a nation imported more than 11,000 tonnes while only exporting about 1000, despite the fact our coastal waters house thousands of native seaweed species.

“Seaweed is a massive global market already – Asia primarily leads the market, but it is emerging quickly in the US and Europe. Australia is lagging,” Ms Kelly said.

This value has been recognised by the Western Australian Government, who has highlighted the potential benefit it poses to the state’s aquaculture industry. 

“The Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development recognises that seaweed is a potentially high-value industry and will continue to explore opportunities for a sustainable seaweed industry to support regional economic growth and employment,” said DPIRD aquaculture manager Steve Nel.

Development of this industry may prove to be a vital part of state and national post COVID-19 recovery, with a majority of the 9000 projected jobs to be in regional areas.

“Although seaweed aquaculture is a relatively new sector in Western Australia and Australia generally, interest is increasing,” Mr Nel said.

The seaweed blueprint proposes that the government issue 10 new aquaculture licenses ocean-based seaweed farms around the country, allowing them to farm commercially.

Three of the proposed licenses are to be allocated to WA and Geographe Bay’s Indian Ocean Sea Vegetables is fighting to get one.

“I think Australia is quite behind the eight-ball with a lot of sustainable products and agriculture. We’re definitely catching at the rate of knots but it’s happening, there are a lot of people interested,” IOSV director Luke Hill said.

The company has been conducting research on local algae for the past three years, maintaining a farm two kilometres offshore. 

The start-up has made plans to expand its farm soon as well as build its own laboratory and food processing facility, with Mr Hill declaring the company has “got the tech skills we just need the equipment”.

IOSV prides itself as being WA’s first edible seaweed farm, growing product that it hopes to one day sell fresh locally to restaurants in the south west.  

“It’s the most sustainable food source… and it’s beautiful,” Mr Hill says.